When is a Ryu? – October 12, 2013, Kim Taylor, CI Sei Do Kai Guelph, Nanadan

Not what is, but when is it a ryu? Sure there are guys out there making brand new “ryu”, but that doesn’t mean they deserve the name. A ryu is the lineage, a school like the Suzuki violin system is the lineage. If Suzuki had taught a few students and that was the end of it, we would not define it as a ryu, a school perhaps but not a system, a lineage.

I believe I said it first about 15 years ago in an article but I’ll say it again. The test of any school (Ryu or not), old, new, real, fake is it’s existance 3 or 4 generations from now. I’ve been around long enough to watch several “secret, special and rare” lineages fail to survive their originator or current headmaster, and the boring old standardized, “popular” stuff continue to roll along.

Of course I have defined a ryu (translation something like “flow” or “river”) as a lineage and you don’t have one of those, by definition, except after some generational change so big deal. Well, yes, big deal. A teacher may be talented and charismatic and have lots of students, but to go into another generation the teachings must have something beyond the talent of the sensei. Those schools that survive tend to have a consistent logical basis that their later teachers can understand, a graduated teaching system that goes from simple to more complex, and perhaps a “signature move” that distinguishes it from other schools. If you think about it a bit, many of the old schools have a “brand” that helps bring in the new students.

How about those established Ryu, are they all legitimate? Do they all present themselves accurately if they survive for a couple of generations? Are the really old ones teaching what they taught 400 years ago?

ALL schools as far as I know have inaccuracies, mistakes and often lies in their history. Hell I’ve got to reconcile Muso Gunnosuke and Miyamoto Musashi and their duel(s) to my students. My solution is to tell one version of the story to one class and then tell the other version to the same students in the next class in the next hour. They get it, and all the implications thereof.

Now it’s usually true that good information drives out bad, and perhaps this sometimes makes a difference to the long term existance of a school as its students find out who really did what and why, but most students can understand a public face and a private face. My facebook feed includes Stan Pranin’s posts with snippets of his past writings and you can see his education about the history of Aikido unfold and the changes on his attitudes. His shock at uncovering the difference between the hagiography and the reality is quite apparent. There are hints of the annoyance of the seniors in the line as well, as he niggled away at the story, changing the message they wanted to present. All of which has done the school no harm at all, Aikido has a huge following. Now, that’s information about a three-four generation line, think what you could uncover over 20 generations.

My own practice over the years includes schools with traditional stories, as in the contradiction between Jodo and Niten mentioned above. It also includes history from the recent generations that I don’t try to hide from my students, but which I am not going broadcast to the world either. Despite the current “gotcha” mentality in the news business, there is something to the idea that dirty laundry really should not be aired in public. All people are people after all, and if your sensei picks his nose there’s not much value in instagramming a photo of the act. It doesn’t have much to do with his ability to teach you to swing a sword after all.

There are a lot of lessons contained here. Japanese fellows are capable of lying… oh my! Some schools have oral and traditional histories that don’t really stand up to scrutiny… goodness! Shocking. Bah, stick around your school long enough and you’ll hear the stories. If it’s a good school, a “legitimate” school your teachers won’t bother trying to fool you for long, they’ll tell you where the gaps are in the official lineage, where the techniques changed and shifted sideways, where the students carried the soke for a few years. If the school is well made and the current teaching good, the past is just a story, good for getting in the new students perhaps but not worth risking the anger of those inside by insisting on the public face in private.

Can there be a new school?

What about the new schools? Some folks have made up martial arts schools that can appear sharp and test their student’s awareness and alertness to the breaking point. The problem? Oh yeah right, liars are bad people… but often end up as leaders and when they’re found out should be thrown out.

While some perfectly legitimate schools are practiced in a slovenly and totally useless way that benefits not one person in the lineage. Oops did I really say that?

Could it really come down not to some “expert’s” definition of “legitimacy” but to the quality of the instructor, irrespective of culture or historical accuracy? Nah, it’s all about who’s got the longest proven unbroken set of densho. Them’s the guys with the best ability to create a better human being.


Well someone who can’t tell a fable from a fact might be suspect as a history teacher but hey, they just might be able to lead a class of “dance” that’s dangerous enough to require your absolute attention for a couple of hours which would cause certain physiological changes in brain activity which would…

Oh never mind, now we’re getting into the basic question of training and who wants to talk about that when we can talk about who’s legitimate.

Bottom line, I’m as fussy about “legitimate” as the next guy, and I don’t see myself creating or joining a new Ryu any time soon, but all these old established Ryu began somewhere and I wouldn’t look too closely if the idea that my school was born in the heat of battle by divine inspiration was important to me.

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